Coming off an unexpected run to the 2008 World Series, it seemed like the sky was the limit for the Rays in 2009.  But they hit a few bumps in the road for a team that was still very young.  The Yankees re-loaded and several players the Rays counted on for big years came up small.  The Rays did not pitch or hit as well in ’09 and that led to, what many considered, a disappointing 3rd place finish in the AL East.  The good news for Rays fans (yes we now believe you exist, at least in a pennant race) is that the team is still very young and long athletic talent and hard throwing arms.  The sun can shine outside Tropicana Field in 2010.

For the Rays to make a move on the Yanks and Sox in the east they will need to become a more efficient offensive team.  The Rays have plenty of speed and power in their line-up, but they also hit for a low batting average and strikeout at an alarming rate.  The Rays had 5 players K more than 100 times last year, three of which were over 140 and they had 2 more that had 89 or more.  Far too many unproductive outs and missed opportunities.  The Rays also had 5 players with more than 282 AB’s that hit .253 or lower.  The Rays averaged nearly 5 runs a game last year, how many more would they have scored had they not had some of those holes in their line-up.

Perhaps more disturbing than some of those numbers was the fact that players like BJ Upton, Dioner Navarro and Pat Burrell had disappointing seasons.  Upton, in particular, was expected to have a huge year after his October heroics in ’08.  The Rays did have guys like Jason Bartlett, Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria put up big, and in some cases unexpected, numbers.  Upton is likely to contribute more in ’10.  Burrell and Navarro are not, but can Carlos Pena continue to produce runs with a ever plummeting batting average.  If things break right for the Rays in ’10 their offense could rival the Red Sox.

If that happens then watch out because the young arms that Tampa Bay features in their rotation could be ready for a breakout season.  Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and David Price all have top of the rotation stuff.  They do need to hone their crafts and be more consistent with their location.  While I think it will be hard for Niemann to top ’09, I do expect Garza, Price and Davis to take big steps forward.  James Shields is also a reliable starter who keeps the Rays in games.  Shields is also the oldest Tampa Bay starter at the age of 28.  The future of this staff is bright, if the Rays can keep them healthy and together.

The Rays bullpen features the key off-season acquisition in Rafael Soriano.  Soriano will take over the closer roll that the Rays had a hard time filling last year.  Troy Percival does not look like he will be healthy again in ’10.  Soriano, if healthy, can hold his own in the role and he is backed up by some experienced bullpen arms in JP Howell, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour and former Oriole Chad Bradford.

If I had to pick which team has the greater chance of catching the Yankess in the AL East, I would pick Tampa.  I have a sense that many of the young players are hungry to get back to the post-season and that the young arms are ascending at the right time.  I would not be surprised to see the youth of Tampa Bay served this year.